Learning Analytics at Bolton College



The use of analytics to deliver continuous business performance has been in existence for over a century but it is only in the last fifteen years that educational data mining and learning analytics has gained traction within the education sector; particularly amongst further education colleges and universities. The rise of learning analytics has come about for two main reasons; firstly, the desire to improve business performance and services to students in an increasingly competitive environment and secondly, because of technological developments within the education sector such as the use of open systems architecture, online analytical processing and data warehousing.

In this article I refer to educational data mining as the set of tools used by educationalists to determine key relationships between different datasets, the ability to identify key groups or traits within the dataset and the ability to establish past and future trends in the wider dataset. I refer to learning analytics as the information or systematic analysis of the results derived from educational data mining that are subsequently used to support managers, teachers and support teams to improve the outcomes for all learners within a school, college or university through the use of informed interventions.

The use of educational data mining and learning analytics is increasingly being used by educational establishments to enhance the design, implementation and delivery of all the services that are delivered by faculties, student support teams, student finance teams, student accomodation teams, exams offices, learner management systems teams and by many other colleagues that support students around the campus.

Learning Analytics at Bolton College

I thought it would be useful to provide examples of how educational data mining and learning analytics are being used by colleagues at Bolton College.


The faculties or departments that make up Bolton College are called curriculum areas. Each curriculum area delivers a broad range of courses. For instance, the Business Services and Hospitality curriculum area offers business, accounting, computing and catering courses to the local community around Bolton. Students and teachers in each curriculum area take advantage of various educational data mining tools and learning analytics services. Two of these services are listed below:

  • Progress Checker presents College teachers, curriculum leaders and classroom support assistants with a simple breakdown of those students who are on track, those who have fallen short of planned targets and those who are falling behind with their studies. The variables that make up the algorithmns for this service include attendance, punctuality, actual and planned grades, subject reviews and other factors and events that have been recorded against a student. The service enables each curriculum area and student support teams to devise and deliver targetted support to each learner.
  • Subject Reviews present teachers and classroom support assistants with a simple RAG rating for each of their students. The traffic light rating system highlights students as red if there is cause for concern regarding a student's progress on the course, amber if progress requires improvement, green if progress on a course is good and a gold star for students who are making outstanding progress with their studies. Students have access to their personal subject reviews from the student home page.


The student home page at Bolton College delivers a wide range of personalised and contextualised services to students. Many of these services have been supported and informed by the College's Information Learning Technology team and their approach to learning analytics. Emphasis has been placed on encouraging positive actions and behaviours amongst the student body through the use of personalised and contextualised information and services that are presented to each student on his or her home page. Here is a short description of some of these services:

  • Real time attendance and punctuality data is presented to each student via the student home page. Students are presented with a current and historical record of their attendance and punctuality across all their programmes of study. Tutors are able to view individual and whole class attendance and punctuality records.
  • Students have access to their overall progress record which is RAG rated. Students and teachers regularly discuss these records with their Learning and Development Mentors and subject teachers and agree appropriate actions and targets that support the long term goal of achieving the qualifications sort by the student. These records, actions and targets are all available to the student via the student home page and to teachers and support workers via the staff home page. Teachers, Tutors and Curriculum Managers are able to access a bank of holistic information for each course so that an assessment can be made regarding the overall progress of students for any given course.
  • Students have the opportunity to update their personal profile when selecting their photo or avatar that is displayed on student home page. Students are able to update various fields such as their home address, their contact details and the contact details for next of kin. Students are also able to record or update their intended destination after completing their current programme of study; such as wanting to progress onto the next level of the course, to pursue an apprenticeship, work, volunteering, wanting to pursue a path into higher education or they may be undecided. The choice of intended destination informs the types of information or services that are displayed on a student's home page. For instance, if a student wishes to a pursue an apprenticeship or an apprenticeship in a partiicular vocational field they will be presented with articles on apprenticeships; such as current apprenticeship vacancies, information relating to applying for an apprenticeship and preparing for the interview or information that points students to forthcoming workshops or activities relating to apprenticeships. Students who have expressed a desire to enter higher education will be presented with information about UCAS the university application process, university open days, student finance and general information about university life. Support teams from across the College also have access to the intended destination information for all students and they are able to put in place appropriate information, advice, guidance and support to ensure that students are fully supported in making the transition from their current course to the next stage.

The benefits of accessing this information and more via the student home page enables students to be more self-directed, motivated, participative and successful in their studies.

The benefits to the College are wide ranging. For instance, the College's curriculum areas are able to capture a holistic picture of the entire curriculum being offered to the student body. Managers are able to assess the successes or failures of specific courses, they are able to ascertain with greater confidence the underlying reasons for these successes or failures and they are able to put in place informed measures that improve or further improve the provision that is offered by their respective curriculum areas.

Student Services

Colleagues in Student Services deliver a wide variety of services to support students throughout their studies at Bolton College. A number of these services are supported by the use of learning analytics; such as providing information, advice and guidance to the student body.

  • The Next Steps news feed delivers targetted, personalised and contextualised information on further training, employment or studies to all students via their home page. Careers Advisors at Bolton College are able to author and target news articles that match the vocational or career interests of each student and to their intended destinations beyond their current studies such as taking further training, commencing employment or embarking on an apprenticeship programme or to inform a students choice of university. The source of this information stems from each student profile and from various interactions that students engage in via the services hosted on the student home page. For example, a student has the opportunity to update their personal profile by declaring their interest in a specific career path or their desire to pursue an undergraduate course. Once a student has updated his or her personal profile the College's learning analytic tools deliver relevant and timely information and services to the student.

The Information Learning Technology (ILT) Team

Bolton College's Information Learning Technology team designs, implements and delivers ILT services that support students, teachers and support teams. The principles that underpin the student facing ILT services include the need to deliver a personalised service to each learner at the College, to ensure that services are contextualised to meet the needs of each learner, to ensure that services are responsive and agile and most importantly, to ensure that services encourage students to become more self-directed, motivated, participative and successful in their studies. The use of educational data mining tools and learning analytics supports all these principles and they enhance all the services that reside on the student and staff home pages.

In the near future, the use of learning analytics at Bolton College will lead to the introduction of an adaptive learning environment to support teaching, learning and assessment. The success of the adaptive learning environment will depend on our ability to utilise learning analytics. For instance, an adaptive learning environment enables teachers to monitor and assess student interactions on the platform and it enhances the teacher's ability to deliver appropriate learning and assessment activities which deliver improved outcomes for the learner.

The Management Information Team

Bringing about greater coherence and organisational intelligence is one of the challenges facing schools, colleges and universities as they get to grips with rising volumes of data. The senior leadership team at Bolton College introduced Dynistics and its Active Dashboards solution to improve the clarity, accuracy and timeliness of information presented to managers across the College. The following video highlights many of the benefits derived from the solution.

Bringing about a greater degree of clarity, deriving useful information and improving operational and strategic intelligence are all objectives of a learning analytics strategy for any school, college and university.

Institutional Change

Until recently many schools, colleges and universities have not made use of the large volume of data that is routinely and systematically collected by their Virtual Learning Environments, Personal Learning Environments, Learning Platforms, Learner Management Systems, e-Portfolios and Library Management Systems to enhance teaching, learning and assessment.

If educational institutions are to capitalise on the use of learning analytics to its full potential, schools, colleges and universities will be required to move away from the silo approach of managing key institutional datasets to a more integrated approach. For instance, in many institutions enrollement data is maintained by registry staff, IT data by IT staff, exams data by the exams office, financial data by the accounts team, staffing data by the Human Resources team and learning data by academic teams.

Prior to the wide spread use of educational data mining and learning analytics schools, colleges and universities typically employed individuals who possessed the expertise to extrapolate and produce reports from stand alone learner management systems, customer relationship mangement systems or from the institution's accounting systems. Typically, the level of interaction across the campus amongst these individuals, teams and systems within these organisations was limited or narrow in scope and depth. With the advent of open systems architecture the traditional model for managing data in colleges and universities irrevocably changed. It enabled teams to access and process data from datasets from across the campus and more importantly it enabled teams to extrapolate, compile and deliver practical information to teachers, administrators and managers. The new model encourages institutions to bring together its knowlege workers and their new hires; such as lead systems developers, systems analysts, information architects and systems developers to form analytics teams that deliver meaningful information that empowers teachers, administrators and managers to deliver improved services and outcomes for all students. The advent of the analytics team has enabled educational institutions to identify improvements in their business processes, has provided fresh insights to new ventures and markets that were previously unforeseen, it has improved resource and estate management, it has delivered improved balance sheets and most importantly it has delivered enormous improvements in the services that students and local communities receive from their colleges and universities.


For further information on learner analytics please refer to the following resources:

  1. The current state of play in UK higher and further education (Jisc - Learning Analytics, 2014)
  2. NMC Horizon Reports for Higher Education 2013 and 2015
  3. Building Organisational Capacity for Analytics (Donald Norris and Linda Baer, 2013)
  4. Action Analytics (Donald Norris, Linda Baer, et al. 2008)
  5. Learning Analytics: Definitions, Processes and Potential (Tanya Elias, 2011)
  6. Educational Data Mining and Learning Analytics: Applications to Constructionist Research (Tanya Ellis, Ryan Baker and Paul Blikstein, May 2014)